Overview

Amtrak in the USA is less of a well organized network and more of a hodgepodged mess-work as far as train systems world wide go. This is due to the nature in which Amtrak is administrated by various states within the USA and their semi-private industry led company. Each state has their own political microclimates that are all too weak to stand up to powerful lobbying efforts from the fossil fuels and automotive industries. On top of all that, there are significant inherent challenges including easements and infrastructure. Even if the overall covered area is limited (Amtrak Map), it is there, and it does work.

We have only traveled the stretch of this system that goes from Kansas City, MO through Jefferson City, MO to St Louis and the route from St Louis to Chicago, IL. I personally have had very good luck with departing on time and often even arriving early. However, @activesidequest has not; she has experience trains both departing and arriving hours late. So, plan accordingly.

Things we love about the train are that you don’t have to drive, and the ride is smooth compared to traveling by car. There are bathrooms on board, and you can bring and eat food during your journey. It seems when traveling regionally, you can also save money compared to driving if traveling with one or two people. By far, the convenience of not having to drive over long distances is the main attraction.

Booking

You can book your tickets up to 11 months in advance through these methods:

The app works really well and, we’ve had plenty of success using it for purchasing and boarding with our eTickets. You can even set up text alerts if the train is delayed. The ticket window closes sales 10 minutes prior to departure, but we highly recommend purchasing your ticket in advance as they can sell out.

 

  • Pets—cats and small dogs—are now permitted on some routes for a $25 fee.
    See details for booking with pets.
  • Bicycles may be brought onboard several routes. Prices, loading procedures, and reservation requirements vary by station. Check the site for more details.
    For cyclists looking to ride the Katy Trail, the Missouri River Runner allows four bikes per train with a $10 fee, and reservation is required. Amtrak staff will tell you where to put your bike when you board.
  • Carry-on luggage is allowed on all trains, with a limit of 2 small pieces and 2 large pieces per customer. Though, on the routes we’ve used no one seems to care how large or heavy your bags are, and we haven’t seen any airline-esque contraptions to determine if you’re over the limit. Checked baggage is only available on certain routes. See the site for specifics.
  • Business Class upgrades are available. The trains we’ve been on offer Business Class seating which shares a train car with the Cafe car. Business Class seating is in the front, then the Cafe section of that car, and in the train cars behind you find Coach Class seating. There are only about 5 to 15 rows with a seat layout of 2 seats on the left of the aisle and 1 seat on the right, so these limited seats can sell out fast. The seats have much more cushion and provide more leg room than Coach Class seats. You are also provided one complimentary soft drink along with your Business Class ticket.

Amenities

  • Wi-Fi is available on many trains, but in our experience is incredibly slow. Streaming sites are blocked, and file downloads are limited to 10MB. Cellular data network coverage for both Verizon and AT&T were very spotty while on both the Kansas City – St Louis and St Louis – Chicago routes. Come prepared with pre-downloaded content or put down your device and enjoy the scenery.
  • Power outlets are available on all trains. The trains we’ve ridden have had two 3-pronged outlets located on the wall just below the window of each seat.
  • Restrooms/Toilets/WC – usually two per train car, cleanliness dependent on the actions of your fellow travelers.

Food and Drink

All trains have either a Cafe, Lounge, or Dining car where you can purchase food and drinks. The most basic, the Cafe car, serves snacks, sandwiches, pizzas, soda, beer and wine. Be forewarned, the prices are extremely high. A can of soda alone will set you back $2.50.

We instead recommend bringing your own meals and drinks. Though, if you want an alcoholic drink you’ll have to purchase it onboard as drinking your own pre-purchased alcohol is limited to private sleeper cars.

Parking

We have to add a note about parking. All of the station appear to have different set-ups, but in our experience we have had difficulty parking. Chicago was fine, no need for parking as they have mass transit, but anywhere else – please look up ahead of time where you can park prior to your trip so you don’t miss your boarding time. For example, in Jefferson City, MO there is no signage directing Amtrak users to the overnight lot several blocks away, and only short-term day parking around the station. In Kansas City, there was a Maker Faire which blocked off much of the roadway and filled all the parking around the station. We prefer being be dropped off or using public transit to get to Amtrak stations.

If given the choice of piloting an automobile for 3 to 9 hours or traveling by Amtrak, I definitely prefer Amtrak. The ride is smooth and I can do other things while traveling that don’t include holding a wheel and constantly watching a road.

 

Jordan – Jerash

Hadrian’s Arch (built 129 AD).

Before going to Jordan I had no idea how many Roman ruins there are there. It’s astounding to see half a Roman city surrounded by a modern-day one. If you go to Jordan, you really must see Jerash (12 JOD/$16.95). You need at least 3 hours if you plan to take in the gladiator show.

We watched the Roman Army and Chariot Experience (12 JOD/$16.95) at the hippodrome.

The legionaries demonstrated Roman fighting techniques which were quite interesting. The chariot race left something to be desired. One of the charioteers couldn’t get his horses under control. Both charioteers looked absolutely terrified the entire time; I don’t blame them.

One of the legionnaires held my friend’s hand. Jordanians are a really friendly bunch.

The hotel staff in Jordan make everything happen. Through them you can book tours, taxis, get restaurant suggestions, and even mail your postcards (for cheaper than the cost of a stamp…somehow.) The Mariam Hotel’s staff in Madaba organized a taxi to pick us up the following day for a half-day tour by taxi. This was a quasi guided tour in that the destinations and time spent at each stop were predetermined, but we were on our own once we got out of the taxi to explore. The tour we picked took us to the Dead Sea and  included stops at La Storia Tourism Complex, Mount Nebo, and The Church of Saints Lot and Procopius. The tour cost around 40JD ($56) in 2014, entrance fees not included.

Stop 1: La Storia Tourism Complex

Wax museum Spice Shop display
La Storia is a strange tourist trap. Part wax museum, part gift shop, but wholly worth skipping if your taxi/tour operator will let you. The displays range from Biblical scenes to daily Jordanian life from days past. The best part of this stop was that we were able to add a piece to “The Kings Way” mosaic which is set to be the world’s largest mosaic. I believe the mosaic has since been completed, and may or may not be on display – it’s difficult to tell from their website.

 

Stop 2: Mount Nebo & The Church of Saint Lot and Saint Procopius

Hazy Day view of the landscape from atop Mount Nebo facing the Dead Sea.

Hazy day view from the mountain towards the Dead Sea.

Said to be the mountain Moses/Prophet Musa climbed to see the Promised Land, Mt Nebo is a sacred location for followers of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. On a clear day this site provides amazing views of the Dead Sea and even as far as Jericho in the West Bank of Palestine. As such, it’s definitely worth the stop even for the non-religious. There are some lovely ancient mosaics to view in the newly reopened Basilica of Moses and in the Church of the Saints.

The entrance fee was 1JD ($1.41) and included a visit to the Church—which is 2km away—as well.

Stop 3: Dead Sea – Amman Tourist Beach

Picture of the Dead Sea

Seriously hazy day at the Dead Sea.

The last stop in our day trip took us to the Amman Tourist Beach, which is one of the most popular spots to experience the Dead Sea. Entrance fee was 20JD ($28) for adults, 10JD ($14) for children. Changing rooms, restrooms, and showers are provided and were reasonably clean. The restaurant and swimming pools were under renovation when we went, but should be open again. You’ll see people in all sorts of swim wear, from bikinis to full burkas. No one seemed to pay much attention to anyone else’s attire though.

The Dead Sea was unlike any body of water I’ve ever swam in. The water is so salty that while you float effortlessly swimming is actually rather difficult. It felt almost oily on my skin and after awhile was a bit itchy. I’d read a warning about shaving before I visited, and I’d definitely recommend not shaving for 24 hours before getting in the water if your skin is even a little sensitive. You can also slather on some Dead Sea mud provided in buckets scattered around the beach, but I abstained since my legs were feeling irritated already.

We only stayed a little over an hour, but my group felt that was plenty of time. Then we were back on the road to our hotel in Madaba.

After spending a few days in Amman we went to Madaba. We had a booked a car from our hotel in Madaba to drive us there from Amman. We waited about 45 minutes before Richard, the driver who picked us up from the airport, convinced us that the other driver wasn’t coming and he took us instead.

The Mariam Hotel was 40 JOD ($57) a night. The room was clean and comfortable.

Breakfast was included with our stay, and was served on the floor above us. Starting at about 1 AM every night we could hear them moving chairs and tables around for a few hours. The breakfast was ok, but after the delicious Jordanian-style breakfasts at the Pasha Hotel in Amman, this felt a little lacking. (Especially when one of the pancakes I tried to eat bested me at cutting it.)

The morning staff (a woman) was very pleasant and helpful. The man that worked the afternoon/evening shift was totally rude and not helpful. I’m sure he deals with plenty of obnoxious tourists, but we gave him no cause to act that way to us.

The Mariam Hotel also has a restaurant so we decided to try it the first night. It was incredibly disappointing. The food was all American items like hamburgers and french fries, and it took quite awhile to get our food. They brought it in from outside (we think the only kitchen was in the breakfast area in a completely different part of the hotel), and my friend joked that it tasted exactly how he expected McDonald’s in Jordan to taste.

We decided to eat only breakfast at the hotel, and were not disappointed with this decision. We found a little falafel shop with ever-changing prices that was ridiculously cheap and delicious nonetheless. In fact, all the shops had super cheap food, and it was all amazing.

Hint: don’t get the weird pickle-ish things that they always want to add to your sandwiches. They don’t taste anything like any pickle you’ve ever had, and that’s not a good thing.

I don’t think it’s possible to find anything but mind-blowing sweets in Jordan.

We mostly ate in our hotel rooms for the trip because people smoke heavily everywhere, there are few places to actually sit down, and we were terrified of getting food poisoning. The added bonus was that we could take pictures of our food without looking like crazy people.

Jordan – Amman

Me, next to part of the Temple of Hercules at the Citadel.

Amman is a massive, sprawling city. We stayed in the older part. Older, as in, going back to the time where it was part of the Roman Empire, and even earlier. People are quite conservative in this area. The only people we saw wearing shirts that didn’t cover them to the wrist were tourists. Couples should refrain from public displays of affection, including holding hands, as this is not appropriate. Two men, however, may hold hands in public, as it is merely a sign of friendship.

 

We walked up one of the many big hills behind our hotel and explored the Citadel. It was well worth the 2 JOD/$2.82 entry fee. This place is ancient, possibly being inhabited since the Neolithic period.

We also explored the Roman Theater. Entry fee was 2 JOD/$2.82. There are two museums on the site, one on the left, the other on the right as you enter the main area of the amphitheater, make sure not to overlook them. The climb up the steps of the theater was quite the workout, and to be honest, a little scary. Some of the steps have been worn down quite a bit. I saw women in high heels climbing the steps; how they managed to not break their necks I have no idea. (The steps on the far left as you climb up appear to have been replaced and are a little safer to climb up/down than the ones in the center.)

For some reason neither of us took pictures of the amphitheater while we were in it. I blame the cold weather that day (it was only in the low 50s F).

That’s me, my friend, and Richard at Al Mujib Dam.

My friend and I decided to go on holiday (yeah I went on holiday while traveling) to a warmer climate. Turns out, Jordan can be down right chilly in March.

We landed at Queen Alia International Airport, near Amman, and were met by our driver, Richard. Passport control at the airport was simple enough, at least for UK and US travelers. Present your passport and 25 JOD (Jordanian Dinar) to the man at the desk, he stamps it, passes it to the guy next to him, he puts stickers on it, gives it back to you, and off you go. You must pay the fee in JOD. I saw an ATM before we got to passport control, but you should probably make sure you have 25 JOD on you before leaving your home country.

(A bit on driving in Jordan-
We could have rented a car, but there’s no way I would have been able to cope with driving there, and my friend doesn’t drive. While there seem to be few rules of the road, there are plenty of speed bumps that sometimes appear out of nowhere. Sometimes two-way streets become one-way because there are a lot of cars going one direction and they just decide to drive in the oncoming lanes. Most lanes aren’t really marked, and even when they are they sometimes disappear suddenly. Parking is a nightmare. People manage to squeeze their cars into spots that seemed to defy the laws of space and time. Everyone speeds, everywhere, even on winding mountain roads. There are few traffic lights. The traffic jams during rush hours (morning, lunch, evening) are crazy. You don’t get a turn, you take it or you’ll be sitting in one spot for a few hours. If you have nerves of steel and can be very aggressive while driving, give it a chance, you’ll see way more of the country that way. If you don’t, get a driver, we recommend Richard.)

Richard took us to the Amman Pasha Hotel for 25 JOD ($35) which is the standard fare. It takes roughly an hour during light traffic. The hotel was excellent. I highly recommend it, although some of their rooms are significantly better than others.

For some reason I didn’t take a picture of our second room. It was also 33 JOD ($46.60) a night, but it was just big enough to fit a queen bed in and shuffle around.

Excellent views of the surrounding hills.

The day we toured the ancient Roman city of Jerash we also planned to visit Ajloun Forest Reserve. After arriving we discovered that all the trails were closed due to all the rain from the days previous. We were quite bummed about missing out, but decided to make the best of it and tour Ajloun Castle instead. The castle was well worth the 1 JOD ($1.41) entry fee.

 

We when arrived back at the Amman Pasha Hotel we decided to have dinner at the Pizza Roma Cafe, which is attached to the hotel. They had great food, drinks, and entertainment. The workers tried to lure us into dancing with them, including when one of the men donned women’s clothing and gave us quite a show.

Sci-Fi Vancouver

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